Alan Warner by Amy Hempel

BOMB 67 Spring 1999
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Alan Warner. Photo © Jerry Bauer. Courtesy of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

In Alan Warner’s native Scotland, in England, and in Ireland where he now lives, the young novelist is a larger-than-life literary figure, one of the Lads of the new Scottish fiction. A former railway worker, Warner is both a thoughtful and intensely intellectual fellow and a glamorous favorite of the press: as one British reporter put it, “… if the literary world has a true pop star, a Keith Richards to Irvine Welsh’s Mick Jagger, it has to be the uncompromising, hedonistic, and utterly stylish Alan Warner.” Warner’s first novel, Morvern Callar, was published in 1995 to near-universal acclaim. It is the story of a young supermarket worker in a small port town in Scotland who markets her dead boyfriend’s novel as her own and heads for the Mediterranean rave scene with the money. Its existential heroine, its immediacy and hyperreal Scots speech and high-velocity sentences won a Somerset Maugham Award for Warner; the novel was also filmed by the BBC. These Demented Lands(1997) followed. It’s a moody, singular, visionary haunter.

This spring, The Sopranos is published by Farrar, Straus, & Giroux in the United States. Already a bestseller in England, the novel is a bawdy picaresque, funny and moving; it tracks five members of a convent school’s choir (Our Lady of Perpetual Succor, a.k.a. the Virgin Megastore) en route to a competition in Edinburgh. It’s a youth-cultural romp with its own dead-on logic: warned of the aging property of smoking, one of the girls says, “Good. We’ll get into over 21s nights sooner.” Though one of the girls is dying, and another’s sexuality is doing a turnabout, they are, to a one, spirited and nasty and game , and why not?—around the corner is their future, a small-town life defined by limitation. In the meantime, as a critic for the London Independent wrote, The Sopranos “takes the stereotype of the wild Highland barbarian, re-genders it, teens it, and sets it loose.”

 

This interview was conducted by e-mail between New York City and Dublin.

Amy Hempel My friend, the poet John Rybicki, has one of my favorite descriptions of what it is like to write. He calls it “lunging at vacancy.” How was writing different for you in The Sopranos from what it was to sit down and write Morvern Callar?

Alan Warner “Lunging at the bar” might be a more appropriate description of writing when applied to me. I wrote Morvern Callar in 1991 when I was poor and working on the railways, living in a run-down flat in Edinburgh blah, blah, blah. I remember I used to phone in sick some days. “Flu symptoms” was my byline, and I would just type all night, on a cheap, old manual typewriter, listening to James Blood Ulmer, New York’s greatest guitarist (some of James’s music ended up mentioned in the novel). I couldn’t afford Tippex correcting fluid on top of my beer allowance, so I would use two or three coats of Milk of Magnesia. I had no publishing contract in those days and when the third or fourth draft of the manuscript was completed, it sat in a box for two years.

The Sopranos was written in 1997/8 in very different conditions: Morvern Callar and These Demented Lands had been published and I’d been a full-time writer since 1995 in a veritable torrent of Tippex correcting fluid. I had a publishing deal and all that.

However, when I sit down with pen in hand I don’t recognize or can’t remember any big intellectual or emotional differences between how I felt, then, isolated and writing my first novel as an unknown writer and how I felt writing my third one or how I feel today, working on what will be my fourth and fifth ones. For me, the challenges and the isolation always feel the same: the excitement of seeing some words suggesting other, better ones; the discovery of new ideas, plot lines, and images through the suggestions of the actual drafts when I reread them and most of all, the conception of the novel you have in your head and the actuality of what it is you produce on that page … the distance between my vision and its execution pretty much obsesses me and the thrill when better things come out in the execution than were in your head, is a hard thrill to equal! An old art historian teacher of mine, Pete Smith, called it all The Aesthetic Gulp!

AH You’ve said that The Sopranos is “a Scottish book, it’s about hiding what really is.” Can you say more about this?

AW Just an old-fashioned allegiance to good, traditional Truth. Like most writers I’m very keen on the Truth for my characters, but not always for myself! I don’t think the Scottish are any more reserved about their true feelings than anyone else. The Sopranos are more truthfully themselves when outside that power matrix of the school/religion; otherwise they must “live a lie” for the sake of an easy life, as we all do, but of course my characters, Fionnula and Orla, are concealing their own vitally important truths: sexuality and mortality. I admire novelists who, sometimes mercilessly, strip down to the truth, like Jean-Paul Sartre, Juan Carlos Onetti, or Walker Percy. We’re surrounded by lies, in our relationships, in the media, in the Governments, and we tell ourselves lies to get through the day, like “Life is not so bad,” or “I’ll have enough money till payday,” or, “There is a merciful God.” Generally just by stripping those lies away you get a hell of a lot of drama. You just need to take a phrase like “collateral damage,” which means children with their sexual organs and all their other organs, too, blown right out of them, to remind yourself how powerful the truth is.

The Sopranos are also faced with the post-Thatcherite future. Shows you how wide the effects of ’80s Thatcherism spread. These 17-year old girls live in a town with few opportunities for women, job-wise and, if you have taste, sex-wise; the town is rife with teenage pregnancy and alcohol abuse—in short, any small town in Scotland in the ’90s. It’s difficult to argue how ’80s and ’90s liberal intellectual feminism has helped these girls. They have no money. They’re not going on to further education so they’ll probably never leave the town; it’s all still about what guy they end up getting pregnant to. It’s not very easy to lie to yourself in the bullring of facts. I think that’s why, in a couple of my books, I’ve been drawn to young women characters. I admire them. They have powerful but unaggressive optimism, a lack of bitterness and usually, a congenital sense of humor.

Which brings me to …

AH Are you sick to death of people asking how you write so convincingly in the voices of young women?

AW Not sick at all. Being asked questions like that is agreeably smoother than working in a supermarket checkout, or going to any job at all, with dread in your heart and only bills in your pocket each and every morning. Or being unemployed. We pampered, arty, successful Scot novelists should remember that. I would hope that the voices of my morally-exhausted male Scottish characters in These Demented Lands, which don’t attract so much attention, are equally “convincing.”

AH You’ve written about your homeland, but not, it seems, about yourself. Yet your background is certainly compelling—why haven’t you gone there on the page? Will you at some time in the future?

AW Compelling, eh? Doesn’t seem like that to me when I do my laundry. I’m working on a long book where the lead character, Simon, is a young railway worker in the Highlands of Scotland: I guess it’s all going to be there; but he has a brother and I don’t. His father is in fishing, which mine wasn’t … though there is a fair smattering of Black Magic up in the hills! I’ve always been suspicious of that Kerouac “cult of the writer” approach. I prefer the more classical novel, Constant, Tolstoy … Distance, distance, distance. I distrust that approach: “I’ll just change the surnames and send off the manuscript!” I hate to see the life outshining the—often life-redeeming—work and I think wild reputations are used to hype up and support inferior work. I see and hear so many great, inspiring things around me each day, learn so many wonderful stories, I don’t know how writers can keep that great stuff out of their books and just bore us with the supposed urgency of their straight and strict autobiographical prescriptions. It seems to me a little like, when you start writing about yourself you’ve run out of ideas. There’s always parts of the writer in our characters though; in my case especially Morvern, I think. It’s back to this terrible situation where the writer and his/her personality become more famous than their work.

AH My friend, the South African novelist Lynn Freed, was recently asked to be on a panel with other writers from troubled countries. Lynn thought the title of the panel was “Cultural Outrage,” and she told the person who invited her that she didn’t feel any cultural outrage—that the situation in South Africa was too complex, etc. Then the man said, No, not cultural outrage, cultural outreach. Alan, you’re living now in Dublin; do you have any feelings of cultural outrage or outreach?

AW Well, it’s easy for us to bellyache on when we don’t live in a country, like Turkey or Nigeria, where fellow writers and journalists are being tortured and imprisoned and executed for what they write. In Algeria some years ago, a professor was shot for refusing to deny his admiration of French literature. I find it impossible to avoid cultural outrage as I look around the Europe of today. There’s this fat, dumb and happy hallucination in contemporary Europe, boosted by the millennium amphetamine suppositories, that there is some cultural flowering going on just now. My God! MTV attention spans and sound-bite news reporting are becoming frighteningly monolithic; it’s suddenly amazingly easy to be radical, to favor radical “underground” art forms as everything becomes so conservative.

Consumerism and the ideas that economic growth and expansionism are God have really taken over. There seem few other values and with genocide back in the former Yugoslavia, and most people indifferent to it, I tend to wonder how far we’ve really come, since, ah, the Spanish Civil War. Because The Media rules over everyone’s consciousness and conscience (e.g. advertising) … the Moral Buck has passed to the US and the UN and the U this and the U that. That allows us in Europe to Not Give A Fuck anymore … hey, you guys and Hollywood have all the power, it’s up to you, We don’t have any power anymore so, if you don’t mind, we’ll just have ourselves a good time watching cable TV while you guys sort out the world. This has led to real decadence and moral cynicism in Europe.

AH You were born and raised in Scotland, we nearly met when I was in London a couple of months ago, and now you’re living in Dublin. At this point in your life, what do you get from this axis: Scotland, England, Ireland?

AW The more axis the merrier, but a main one for me is Spain/Scotland. My wife is Spanish but it’s only interesting in so far as it affects the books I’m trying to write. I was in the Highlands till I was 21 so no matter what I write, it’s through the eyes of a Scottish Highlander. I’m writing a new novel mainly set in Spain and Europe. That’s all I can say really. I don’t really like new places, they make me nervous. I still think of traveling and living in places other than my village as romantic adventures. Someone asked me to contribute some travel writing recently and I realized I don’t know what travel writing means anymore. It seems a false concept to me. Sea & Sardinia and all that.

AH You’re getting a pilot’s license? What prompted this, and what will you do with it?

AW I’d keep it in my wallet. My village actually has an airstrip and I have this fatal delusion of when I return home, arriving in style!

AH I find that most writers’ dialogue sounds written, not spoken, but yours is uncannily accurate. Does this have something to do with your love of music, or do you just listen closely?

AW Spoken language, the real voices and dialects of the regions, has been the important aspect to Scottish literature in the last years. The idea that you could, in The Sopranos, have a third-person narrative voice speaking the same dialect as the characters is wildly exciting to me and this use of working class Scottish language has revitalized and energized Scottish literature; I think this access to the spoken language of everyday people in Scotland is what makes English

literature seem so gray and formal to us. Everybody speaks like a schoolteacher and working-class characters just go “Oi! Aww right Guv’nor.” Of course there is a demographic and political point going on here that literature was hardly being written from the working-class point of view with any authenticity. British novelists were middle class dealing with a middle-class world often far removed from the daily experience of most folk, and certainly linguistically alien. In my books I’ve tried to render weird worlds, but in familiar language, which I think explains some of the popularity of my novels amongst young people.

AH Some of the most eloquent moments in your books come when you render the Scottish landscape: “Time wasn’t finished with the world here” (Morvern Callar). It made me think of the Canadian poet Anne Michaels, saying in her novel Fugitive Pieces, “If one no longer has land but has the memory of land, then one can make a map,” and, “It is no metaphor to witness the astonishing fidelity of minerals magnetized, even after hundreds of millions of years, pointing to the magnetic pole, minerals that have never forgotten magma whose cooling off has left them forever desirous. We long for place, but place longs for itself.” Does longing fuel your work in large or small part?

AW Yes, I’d like to be drawn, like mercury, back to the mountains and fields of my youth, when they seemed so much bigger and summer nights seemed to come on so much more slowly. I do want to return to live in the area of Oban, and I visit a lot to where I was brought up but I know the end of this voluntary exile will affect my writing. I think it’s too soon to go back just now and I don’t want to throw the balance on the book I’m working on set there. Maybe the book is too personal and too fragile for me to risk writing it amongst loved landscapes (and loved ones) that have aged. One day, when my work is done, I’ll go home.

AH I find all three of your novels extremely evocative, though I have never been to Scotland and my most Scottish experience was having my ears pierced with a kilt pin by a roommate in boarding school. Of course, this means you have tapped into Something Universal, but I’m guessing there was no such big reach at the outset?

AW I wish I could deny it, but I think, though shamelessly ambitious and presumptuous, I was aiming at that big reach from the start. The idea of making the local universal (and the local which I knew intimately but which I didn’t believe could have a valid place in literature) is a central thing in my work for me. When I wrote Morvern Callar I felt terribly alone, as if I’d taken my world with me into whatever form of silence I was forced, despair, lethargy, bad art, death … the idea I could write a book, using aspects of my Highland community and incidents from my youth and most importantly, using the dialect of my homeland and even my family, seemed almost absurd to me even though I continued to work on the book. Because I came from a small village in an isolated part of Scotland, I rightly or wrongly assumed that place had no literary culture or validity of its own and that I was writing in a void about things that could not possibly interest anyone else, but I don’t think that led me to try and universalize the material. Though I bizarrely believed all great writing had to be set in Paris or New York or the American South or, at the very least, a Glasgow housing estate and couldn’t possibly originate in my all-too-familiar community, my first novel has its strong sense of Morvern being grounded in a definite community. Though I felt tremendous alienation about my culture and background I never for a moment considered, though I’d lived in London and Spain, setting the novel anywhere else. It had to be the way it was though I was filled with woe as I wrote it. I realize now that a novel can spring from any geographical place and this taints me with an unfair suspicion of “metropolitan” novel writing. The London novel, the New York novel of manners … etc … tends to get me reaching for writers who seem to write from the geographical peripheries: E. Annie Proulx, Knut Hamsun, Cormac McCarthy, Duncan McLean, Juan Carlos Onetti, Peter Handke, Denis Johnson, Joao Guimaraes Rosa, Haldor Laxness, etc.

AH When you spoke of your self-imposed temporary exile from Oban, I thought of something Alice Munro said about the betrayal—that was her word—of leaving home, especially in the working classes. Something about how one begins to talk differently, for example, and feels guilty about it. In fact, one of her books is titled Who Do You Think You Are. Does this strike a chord with you? Even though you celebrate the place you came from?

AW There’s always an element of cruelty about the interview form which is at the heart of its popularity. Yet I feel a foolish need to be honest. I resent the word “betrayal”—if that’s how Alice Munro feels about her past then that’s her problem, not mine. My feelings are totally positive. I never betrayed my background at all. “Betrayal” sounds like an excuse for snobbism, as does starting to talk differently. Basically I associate my 21 years in Oban with my Love for my Parents. I’ve always been deeply uncertain as to my status as a member of the working class and, thankfully, deeply insecure about my status now as a member of the middle class! I’m terrified of respectability in all its ghastly forms.

I was born when we lived in a rented room (I was conceived in Spain the day Kennedy was shot). My father was ex-army, an NCO, war hero (North Africa and Italy); he and my mother were working class. Both left school at 14, grew up very poor, little education. Here’s something I never tell anyone but I think it’s why I became a writer. When my father gave me a sick note for school (and I tried to obtain as many as I could) I would always have to check it for spelling. My father couldn’t distinguish between “has” and “as” in written English: “Alan as been off school because” … so with a fastidiousness I now find repulsive but also heartbreaking, I would slip the note from the envelope and, to protect my father’s honor, I would correct the spelling mistakes in those sick notes, forging his hand so the teacher wouldn’t have one up on my father. You can have a bit of money but not know French or send your kids to piano and ballet lessons or have books in the house: all of which is my definition of being middle class. I was the first member of our family ever (in all generations) to go on to Further Education. I still find it inconceivable when I learn someone’s father actually went to university.

Yet my father and mother, through the ’60s and ’70s, owned a respectable/bordering-on-exclusive seaside hotel. We were making some good money in the ’70s and my father knew how to live it up. He drove new Jaguars and I still see him, standing by the dispense with a bottle of Louis Latour 1962 open at his side, grinning at me as another lobster was taken on through to the dining room on an old, banged-up silver platter. That look forced me to be complicit, and said, “Look son, we’re ripping off the bastards again.” The “bastards” of course were the rich. In 20 years he claimed he’d never met a guest. But we became rich in the ’70s. My parents fought badly and when things got bad, one or the other would swish me off … the Hilton in Marbella, Churchill’s Hotel on Madeira, where sleds speed you down from the mountain top on the cobbles, to outside—the best fish restaurant in town. Playing cards all night on a balcony of The Carlton in Alicante and eating at The Dolphin or billiards against my Father, him reading me Jaws, all night long, in his halting voice, cigarettes and whisky at his side, expurgating the sex and swear words. I had a double upbringing: poor, then there was money, then due to my refusal to conform, poor again. Though I went to university, my jobs on either side of that were all staunchly working class.

My Dad was a bit of a legend, taught me everything, gent, tough guy and a drinker, hated clever books and learning … my relationship with him was real Kafka, Letter-To-His-Father stuff, then in the ’80s his drinking got the better of him and I was making no money, I was working in bars, the railways, supermarkets, I couldn’t function in white-collar jobs; I seemed a son gone astray, so there was an ambience of a fallen family who had once seen better things. I felt a failure as a man and a son and then I had to watch my father die; my books and myself became “successful” immediately after he died and only that made me bitter. I don’t feel a single element of betrayal in a class or moral sense, I’ve always stuck by my guns and I never screwed over anyone to “make a buck.” I celebrate and sing my background and if I was half the human being my mother is, I’d be a good person. I spent all my life thinking the world could give me things that were inside me all the time. I think that’s the theme of a novel I’m writing.

AH A number of writers I know feel that a book, as a human document, should be flawed. Are there places where you feel your reach exceeded your grasp? Something you couldn’t get exactly?

AW I think every artist hopes to have their best work ahead of them and I pray mine is too. Picasso said a great thing, something like: “To imitate other artists is understandable, but to imitate yourself is pathetic.” You have to keep moving on, so I find the work gets morechallenging and interesting as time goes by and of course, I have dissatisfactions with my published and ongoing work but I also like some of it. All I’m trying to do is learn and become a better writer; to hone my instincts. But I don’t think I’d knowingly publish anything that I felt wasn’t achieving what I was trying to do. I don’t think a book has to be flawed at all. I’d love to write a (in my mind) formally perfect novel that you could read ten years later and not want to change a word. In fact it’s my ambition to write the same novel twice! (And get the same Advance for it!) So perfect, every word and sentence must be the way it is! Milorad Pavic published Dictionary of the Khazars twice, one version with a single paragraph changed! He called them the Masculine and Feminine versions!

AH There’s an amazing scene in The Sopranos in which Orla, in a hospital in Glasgow after a visit to Lourdes in hopes of a cure, tries to have it off with a patient in a coma. You navigate expertly between humor and horror and, ultimately, something quite sad in a way that made me think of one of my favorite stories, “Emergency” by Denis Johnson. Do you know it? Is it hard to move between those poles?

AW I remember that great Denis Johnson story from his fabulous collection, Jesus’ Son. The character has all those little baby rabbits, cut from a road-kill rabbit, stuffed down his shirt and he’s so stoned he sits on them and kills them! Fantastic stuff. I love Johnson’s Resuscitation of a Hanged Man and Fiskadoro. To be compared to Denis Johnson would be a bit too strong a compliment I think. I believe the poles you describe are very much those of life itself: beautiful flowers next to dead bodies, etc. Life is pretty horrific, then it’s surfeit with beauty also; you cannot deny one or the other. I think the novelist has to take all that on board, and idealism makes for bad novels. I think horrific and humorous events take a big place in the formation of characters’ psyches, so it’s the perfect excuse to bring it all in.

AH In an old interview with Philip Roth, George Plimpton asked if the nightclub act of Lenny Bruce was an influence upon the comic methods Roth used in Portnoy’s Complaint. Roth said he was “more strongly influenced by a sit-down comic named Franz Kafka and a very funny bit he does called The Metamorphosis …” Much of The Sopranos is very funny, and I wondered who you find really funny, on page or stage.

AW I have a real horror of modern “stand up” comedians. I just leave the club and go to a bar when that stuff starts. They strain so much, they’re so vulgar and their egos have to be at the center of a joke rather than the formalism of old vaudeville/music hall comedians who have all died out now.

I saw a tape of Jackie Gleason and I think W. C. Fields is hysterical. Laurel & Hardy, who intellectuals have always passed over for colder Chaplin, are so tragic and good. In writing for comedy I love everything by Sam Beckett who is just one of the funniest but most moving writers ever. He is too intellectualized by Herr Professors and his roaring humor is lost; I just howl and howl till I have to leave before the finish of his plays, even the late ones Rockabyand What When? Once a dear friend of mine and I went to see Waiting for Godot in London. We were terribly ripped and 20 minutes into the First Act, Giles stood up and roared “I’m Godot, I’m here, now we can all go to the bar.” He was thrown out. Try reading Beckett’s First Love aloud without cracking up! Another book that makes me nearly vomit with laughter is Seven Men by Max Beerbohm. Kennedy Toole’s Confederacy of Dunces had a big effect on me when I was 16, but all my friends are down on that book these days. I must reread it. Luis Buñuel’s movies are terribly funny, especially the divine Viridiana and Tristana, with that sardonic, very Spanish humor.

AH When I was in London, my Scottish host taught me what a “Glasgow Kiss” is. I need help with one expression in your second novel: “Hoody Crows”?

AW I hope your friend didn’t demonstrate one! A hoody crow is just a large, black female crow. When I was a child I was told a hoody would come down and poke the eyes out of a baby left unattended in a pram.

AH Is it true you have relatives from the island of Mull in the Hebrides? Is that where Virginia Woolf set To The Lighthouse?

AW Yes. My mother and all my uncles and aunts are from Mull and I spent summers there and feel a bit of a local too. The island has just tragically lost four young men on their way back home to Iona, between islands in a dinghy at night. Uncannily similar to parts of These Demented Lands, I’m ashamed to say.

My Woolf scholarship is poor but I’m sure To The Lighthouse is set on the island of HOY up in the Orkney islands near where my great friend, the fantastic story writer and Western Swing expert, Duncan McLean lives. Around the time of writing The Sopranos I was rereading books set over a 24-hour time span … Under The VolcanoUlysses, and I reread Mrs. Dalloway … I found it faintly ridiculous and insulting, trivializing young men’s deaths with this upper-class dinner party as if it was some kind of achievement. I never liked Woolf’s work … give me the vigor and style of Christina Stead or Henry Handel Richardson any day.

AH There are writers who, after an initial success, take an attitude and let that substitute for work. But I don’t see any slacking off in energy or intent here.

AW I don’t see why I should rest on any laurels and I haven’t lost any hunger at all. I’ve only been published for three years and I never wanted to only be read by university professors; I want to sell copies of my books because I believe in them. I’m still surprised and delighted to see my books in airports. I hold a silly theory that writers are good for about ten years before they start to parody their own style, and run out of the inspiration; so I pray I’ve a little time yet.

AH Your notoriety doesn’t have a shape yet here in the States, but in the foreign press a cult of personality has grown up around you. They love your outspokenness, your partying, your wicked provocative humor (you told one reporter your new novel “is shite, but it’s better than London Fields”). My sense is that you don’t take this public persona seriously and are able to have a laugh with it. But does it make you self-conscious?

AW I once talked for two hours about Scottish literature to a major newspaper. I talked about synthetic language, the influence of MacDiarmid and Tom Leonard on me, my take on Foucault, etc. When the article was published it was titled “The Sexiest Lips in Literature” and somehow there was no intellectual content whatsoever. I was still naive then and assumed newspapers were actually interested in my books rather than just A Story. I did an interview with The Times. I took the journalist to a good restaurant. We shared a single bottle of wine and I was polite and lucid. And I picked up the tab for her meal. When the article came out it was headed “He Might Make His Money From Depictions Of Working-Class Misery But Alan Warner Enjoys The Highlife.” When you’re dealing with human beings like that you tend to get weary and cynical.

Thankfully I can pick and choose my interviews these days and of course there are many serious intellectual magazines where you can talk freely. I remember that interview you mention; there was a better bit when I read to the journalist in the back of a taxi then threw The Sopranos out of the window!

AH This last is not a question so much as a comment. There is a line near the end of Morvern Callar that makes me teary every time I read it. There is a night when Morvern goes from rave to wave—she leaves a night of dancing and drugs in a club on Ibiza and finds an unpeopled spot of beach. She goes for a sensuous swim in the sea, in the dark, and then says, “I hadn’t slept for three days so I could know every minute of that happiness that I never even dared dream I had the right.”

AW In life I think you can only choose happiness or art. If you’re not an artist then I hope you’re happy. It would be fortune indeed to get both.

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